‘Obesity quadruples to nearly one billion in developing world’, BBC News warned last Friday. It seems it’s not just people in rich countries who are getting fat. The whole world is getting fatter and something must be done.
That was the message of a widely covered report by a UK development think tank, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), published last week. According to the report’s authors, using World Health Organisation (WHO) figures from 2008, 34 per cent of the world’s adult population has a body mass index (BMI) greater than 25. These people are categorised as either ‘overweight’ (if their BMI is between 25 and 30) or ‘obese’ (those with a BMI greater than 30). In 1980, 250million people in poorer countries were overweight or obese, compared to 321million in richer countries. By 2008, there were 904million people who were overweight or obese in poorer countries, compared to 557million in richer countries.
As one of the report’s authors, Steve Wiggins, explains in the accompanying press release: ‘The growing rates of overweight and obesity in developing countries are alarming. On current trends, globally, we will see a huge increase in the number of people suffering certain types of cancer, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, putting an enormous burden on public healthcare systems.’
The first thing to note is that this is in many ways a success story, not a disaster. The proportion of the world’s people who don’t get enough to eat has been shrinking for decades. If everyone in a population has enough to eat, then some will stay slim, some will become a bit chubby and a few will become downright fat. This is a far better situation than the undernutrition that has plagued poorer countries for decades, if not centuries.
Indeed, the report’s authors take it for granted that the world will carry on getting richer and that malnutrition – in the sense of people not getting enough energy and protein in their diets – will largely become a thing of the past. It is worth taking a moment to consider how far we have come when the biggest concerns in a report about the world’s future diets are the impact on people’s health of richer diets and the problems for the environment of eating more meat. It’s a far cry from the scare stories of the Sixties and Seventies about hundreds of millions of people dying of hunger.